Bhutan: Snowman runners complete first 66 kms

GASA, Bhutan (Kuensel/ANN) - Gasa is most beautiful, with autumn at its peak, . The forest reveal a stunning freshness.

With autumn at its peak, Gasa is most beautiful. The forest reveal a stunning freshness. The rains have receded and thick fleecy clouds cover the surrounding mountains that are usually covered with snow.

With the flagging off the most challenging and gruesome ultramarathon – the Snowman Calibration Run 2019 – yesterday morning from Gasa dzong, it added to the pleasant surrounding.

By 5:30am yesterday, officials from Bhutan Amateur Athletes Federation, Snowman Run Secretariat, district and few students of Gasa Primary School gathered near the dzong along with the seven runners.

As the runners readied, Gasa dratshang (religious institution) lam neten conducted lhabsang thruesel, a cleansing ritual. Gasa dzongdag (governor) Rinzin Penjore and former Cabinet secretary Kezang Wangdi flagged off the run.

The seven runners started the 300kms journey at 6am, carrying their own gears like sleeping bags, mattresses, hydration bags, energy bars and hot water bottles. They will run through the breathtaking, but difficult and rugged nature for five days to reach Bumthang on October 17.   

As the running trails are through extreme remote areas with no mobile network and less human settlements, they would use GPS instrument to alert any help needed.

They covered 66kms yesterday in six to seven hours and camped at Rodophu, which is 4,215ms above sea level, where they are provided with food and tents.

Today they would cover the most difficult stretches of the journey to reach Tsojo crossing the Gangla Karchung. On the third day, they would cover another 59kms to reach Geche Wom, which is the highest point of camp at 4,500ms above sea level. The fourth night will be in Dhur Tsachu in Bumthang after covering 47kms. The runners will cover 65kms on the last day to reach Kurje.

Pre-flag off night

With the seven runners housed in the dzongkhag guest house near the town, there was both excitement and fear. The board members briefed them and health check-ups were conducted before the run.

The amateur mountain runners, who have returned to Gasa after 10 days of acclimatisation in Laya, about 4,000ms above sea level, said they are confident they would complete the 300kms race in five days.

In the last two months, the seven runners, comprising of soldiers from the Royal Bhutan Army, farmers, a government and private employee, not only trained themselves on running, but also prayed a lot. Besides the medicines and energy boosters, they are carrying dough of barley flour, ara (local brew) and sugar to beat the altitude sickness.

Although a winner of many full marathons and represented Bhutan in international marathon races many times, Sangay Wangchuk said he has been contemplating for days about the race. “I keep telling myself I will make everyone proud by completing this race and understanding climate change and the role of our highlanders,” the soldier said.

He said he consulted Laya residents and tour guides who made the toughest snowman trek about altitude sickness. “I am now much confident.”

A farmer from Rukubji, Tandin, who represents the highlanders, said he is both excited and worried. “I just want to motivate other highlanders to participate in the Snowman Run next year by completing this race.”

The only civil servant in the team, Singey Dorji, said the acclimatisation in Laya really helped him to prepare. Running uphill to peaks in Laya which were 4,980ms above sea level, he said boosted his confidence. “Otherwise, I worry a lot when I think about race.”

He said he hopes to motivate international runners to come and participate in the Snowman Run next year, who will be ambassadors of Bhutan and climate change.

A private employee, Karma Zamba Wang, said he just wants to run. “Two months was enough. I just want to run.”

He said that after the run, he would talk to highlanders and other people who know about climate change to raise awareness in his own capacity.

A yak herder from Sephu, Dorji Tshewang, said he keeps telling himself that he is a highlander who is familiar with the mountains and that he could complete the race, but he gets worried whenever he thinks of the distance.

In the last two months, he received several calls from his wife who is alone with the yaks and a small child in the mountains, asking him to come home. “I resisted, saying this race was His Majesty The King’s vision and I will come only after completing it.”

A soldier, Druptho Wangchuk, who also won many marathons, said he is optimistic to complete the race successfully after the rigorous practice.

He said he is hopeful he would be able to explain to other international participants next year.

Another soldier, Kinley Gyeltshen, said his stay in Damthang might help him to beat the altitude sickness. “300kms is too long for a run but I practiced enough for it. I should be able to do it.”

The runners said they called their homes and asked their family and relatives to appease the local deities for their safety.

Why the race

This Calibration Run is a test run leading up to the first Snowman Run scheduled to take place on October 13 next year.

The Snowman Run secretariat and board members said that the run is expected to raise awareness on climate change issues, showcase Bhutan and the highland culture. It is also expected to help in promoting the tourism industry.

They said the run was envisioned by His Majesty The King after multiple visits to the highlands to witness the impacts of climate change in the community. “The race is expected to showcase our conservation efforts,” said a board member.

The race, mostly above the tree line, will provide runners the firsthand experience of the impact of climate change through receding glaciers, which feeds the rivers.